Freytag’s Triangle in Things Fall Apart
There are five distinct elements to Freytag’s Triangle, which are:
exposition, complication, the climax or turning point, falling action and
finally the denouement. In Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, we
witness the rise and fall of the protagonist, Okonkwo, along with the
destruction of his culture and community. These two elements mirror each
other as an examination of the death of a tribal culture. The exposition of
the novel is an exploration of the character of Okonkwo and the customs,
religion and laws of his tribal community, Umuofia. The complication
details the seven-year banishment of Okonkwo to Mbanta and the growing
threat of missionary law and religion to the Ibo people. The climax is the
killing of the court messenger by Okonkwo while the falling action is the
lack of response by his people to his desire to attack and drive out the
missionaries from their lands. The denouement is the suicide of Okonkwo.
The exposition of Things explores the tribal culture of the Ibo and
also examines the character of their great warrior and leader, Okonkwo.
Okonkwo was a man driven by a ruthless ambition to achieve greatness. He
labored tirelessly to build his fame and fortune throughout Umuofia. He was
intolerant of weakness in others and was well known for his hair-trigger
temper that would often erupt in violence. At least part of the driving
force behind Okonkwo’s ambition and intolerance was the deep shame and
animosity he held for his father. The narrator notes, “And so, Okonkwo was
ruled by one passion-to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved.
One of those things was gentleness and another idleness.” (Achebe, 13)
This uncompromising strength would have served his tribe well when the
missionaries showed up, but fate dealt Okonkwo and his tribe a bitter hand
of cards when he is exiled for accidentally killing a young man during a
funeral. This exile would lead to the fall of Okonkwo and his tribe. His
absence would leave his village vulnerable to the missionary attack on his
people’s way of life.
The exposition also reveals the intricacies of the tribal culture,
religion and law of Umuofia. The narrator reveals, “Umuofia was feared by
all its neighbors. It was powerful in war and in magic, and it’s priest and
medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country. They have a system
of currency using Cowry shells. We learn that they are a polygamous culture
that is dominated by the husband. Each man lives in a compound with his
wives; each wife lives in a separate hut with her children. When Okonkwo
beats his wife during the Week of Peace, he must appear before Ezeani, the
priestess of the earth goddess, Ani and is fined for his transgression.
(31) The exposition reveals the importance of yams and palm oil to the
people of Umuofia. The exposition takes place during the first 13 chapters
of Things Fall Apart, and it is where we learn about the day-to-day life of
the people of Umuofia.
Chapters 14-19 deal with the intrusion of missionaries on the lives of
the people of Umuofia and on the exile of Okonkwo. This is the complication
or rising action of Achebe’s novel. The narrator writes about Okonkwo’s
exile by asserting, “Although he had prospered in his motherland Okonkwo
knew that he would have prospered even more in Umuofia, in the land of his
fathers where men were bold and warlike. In these seven years he would have
climbed to the utmost heights. And so, he regretted every day of his
exile.” (162) Okonkwo’s exile leaves a void with the people of his village
when the missionaries begin to infiltrate their way of life. The narrator
notes, “The missionaries had come to Umuofia. They had built their church
there, won a handful of converts and were already sending evangelist to the
surrounding towns and villages.” They spread to the village of Mbanta where
Okonkwo is exiled and when the villagers hear that one of the Christian
converts has deliberately killed a royal python, Okonkwo reveals his
response to this invasion of outsiders, “Let us not reason like cowards, if
a man comes into my hut and defecates on the floor, what do I do? Do I shut
my eyes? No! I take a stick and break his head. That is what a man does.
These people are daily pouring filth over us, and Okefe says we should
pretend not to see.” (158-59) Okonkwo is clearly ready to drive these
interlopers out. An elder of Mbanta states his fear about missionaries when
he says, “An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave
his father and brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his
ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his
master.” (167) These words echo in Okonkwo’s mind as he prepares to return
to his village.
The climax is foretold by a conversation between Okonkwo and his
friend, Obierika. Okonkwo ask, “What is it that has happened to our people?
Why have they lost the power to fight? …We must fight these men and drive
them from our land.” (175-76) Obierika replies, “It is already too late.
Our own men and our sons have joined the stranger.” Okonkwo is not ready to
give up; he helps inspire the people of his village to burn down the
missionary church. Okonkwo and 5 other leaders of the village are arrested
and then beaten and humiliated until a fine is paid for the church fire.
After the fine is paid and the 6 are released, the village calls a meeting
to discuss the crimes against their culture, it is during that meeting that
a court messenger show up and tries to break up the meeting. Okonkwo chops
off his head. The narrator tells us, “Okonkwo stood looking at the dead
man. He knew that Umuofia would not go to war. He knew because they let the
other messengers escape. Okonkwo turned and walked away, alone. This
represents the falling action of the novel. The reaction of his people to
his violent call to arms against the invaders of their way of life is to
run away in fear. He has no army to lead. The great warriors of Umuofia
have been pacified.
The denouement is the suicide of Okonkwo. He kills himself because he
can’t face a future where the life he has devoted himself to has now become
extinct. He also despairs that his people will lose their life, their
culture without fighting for it. He does it even though it is an
“abomination” and “an offense against the Earth…” (207) Obierika mourns
for his friend, “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove
him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog…” (208)
Okonkwo’s death represents the death of a way of life.